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WHITE FEATHER FLYIN'

By Robert Latimer Hurst


"I shall never forget the things that passed through my mind as this train reach the top of a little hill just south of Screven and started down the fill for the Satilla River (and Waycross). There is a little curve just after passing over the river, and I wondered if the engine was going to take that curve at its speed or if it was going to take to the woods." --D.S. McClellan

Some of the older men in Waycross' Atlantic Coast Line Railroad Shops glanced at the pieces; not many recognized what they saw on that day in 1942. Certainly the remains of the "Rhode Island Lady" did not resemble that practically new engine --Number 111 --which had set a speed record 41 years earlier.

But it was she, and for some, the years melted away to that early March morning in 1901 when Albert Hinson Lodge, the already long-time veteran freight engineer for the Savannah, Western and Florida Railway Company (which the ACL would buy in April, 1902), received honors for going faster than any other man alive.

Newly formed streamer headlines screamed "Boxer Rebellion Begins," "Carrie Nation smashes Kansas Saloon," and "Colombia Hesitates on Canal Rights." Soon they would shout, "`Rhode Island Lady' Breaks Record for Speed."

The Spanish-American War had ended, but occupation troops were to remain in Cuba until 1902. Post Office Department officials, realizing the need for faster mail service, had begun drawing up a contract to award either the Plant System or the Seaboard Air Line Railroad, both of which operated south of the ACL termination point of Charleston. Actually, Seaboard was favored because of her more direct route. The Plant Road detoured over 30 miles from Savannah to Waycross then to Jacksonville. And it was Jacksonville where the steam packet to Havana waited to load the mail.

With due formality and expected results, the government announced that eight cars of mail would be delivered at Savannah, where the very first train had run on American tracks in 1820. They would be split between the two roads. Whoever showed up first in Jacksonville would be winner, and the winner would be awarded the million-dollar mail contract.

At 3 a.m., two trains of identical length shot off at the "GO!" signal from Union Station in Savannah. Considered the last race of this type permitted or promoted on American railroads, the SF&W (Plant) and the FC&P (Seaboard) darted through the Georgia coastal fog with their picked crews and unrestricted orders.
Although still hot from the Washington run, the trains carried the finest equipment available; but the SF&W's handicap was that longer route. And added trouble had already begun.

The two tracks paralleled each other for the first 15 miles. Each crew almost felt the tension of his rival. The Seaboard had made the claim of beating the other by one-half hour. The guages registered 70 miles per hour. 

Engine 107, which had started the race for the Plant, began to give off a "rank smelling" smoke. Engineer Ned Leake immediately sensed trouble. An experienced engineer feels trouble, it is said. Soon, the Plant charger was "limping and stinking" at 30 miles per hour.

"Seems like a hotbox on one of the drivers," said Leake to his fireman. Plant's Special coasted into Burroughs, only twelve miles out of Savannah. It was a hotbox, and the burning packing testified to the trouble. Replacing the packing would take about 20 minutes. The distance handicap, a hotbox, and now more aggravation as the Seaboard zoomed past in the spotlight cast by the stalled rival train created an uneasiness only felt by the desperate.

Repaired, the train tried again --only to stop as the acrid smoke resumed pouring off and mixing with the settling fog. "Here was a `bad-rodder' case the shop mechanics would have to cure" was the general opinion of the disgusted crew. Stopping at Fleming, they had covered 24 miles in one hour.

Engineer James Ambrose, who was riding with Leake, remembered that a southbound train left Savannah at 3:30 a.m., and she had a brand new engine. Number 23 was due in Fleming at 4:17. She arrived at 4:20.

Now, Albert Lodge takes over. A fifty-year-old dynamo, this engineer would go with his engine when the switch was made. So Engine Number 111 -- or "Rhode Island Lady" --a 4-6-0 ten-wheeler, moved into position and railroad history. A little black-and-silver bandbox, her crossheads, side-rods and driver tires of steel gleamed as if anxious to get moving. Indeed she was!

And the Special was on her way at 4:30. From Fleming to Jesup is 33 miles; "Rhode Island Lady" made it in less than 33 minutes. Watered and oiled, she was off again with a new passenger, Dan S. McClellan, a dispatcher from Waycross. 

A hour late, she must make up time if she intended to get the mail to Jacksonville that morning. Orders then came: this train is to have the right-of-way. Engineer Lodge had never had such an order. A railroad man all the way, he obeyed. "Lady" would deserve this special privilege.

Ripping out of Jesup, Number 111 carried the "white feather over her back." Screven, twelve miles, was made in nine minutes; more speed was added. She was traveling at 120 miles per hour: five miles in two and one-half minutes. 

What is now the Little Satilla Bridge created a slower speed, but once over, Engine 111 "howled and rampaged" through Patterson and Blackshear between 90 and 100 miles per hour, reports Clyde Carley in his article "The Great Georgia Mail Train Race" in SAGA Magazine (August 1954).

In Waycross at 5:30 with 75 miles to go, the racer figured that they had come the 40 miles from Jesup in 28 minutes. The Waycross yards slowed them down to a stop; here they again watered and oiled the steaming "Lady" that had been averaging 80 miles per hour.

Speed continued, the puffing rail snapper headed south toward Racepond. Only after this village bordering the Okefenokee Swamp did the thought of slowing down creep into Lodge's mind. The curve north of Folkston was treacherous. But a challenge between "Lady" and the curve became apparent. With just a moment of indecision, the throttle got pulled five notches. The "Lady" probably smiled because she knew that would be victorious. "You know," McClellan, nursing a blistered hand, would report,"Those steam pipes actually felt cool right then."

Folkston was next at 5:51; 35 miles covered in 25 minutes. Jacksonville was 42 miles away. Engine 111 pranced into the Florida's city yard limit and edged into Union Terminal at 6:31.

These men had traveled faster than any other men; it would be 1903 before the Kitty Hawk air venture and first country auto trip. And their record would stand unequalled until 1934; it would never be surpassed.

What about the Seaboard? Well, their Conductor Glass, confident of hands-down victory when he didn't see the Plant train, which was already being checked in the Jacksonville yard, inquired: "You heard anything on the Plant's mail trap? We passed `em at Burroughs with an old broken-down engine. This ought to teach `em not to bid against a real railroad."

Quiet at first, then Dispatcher McClellan,nervously exhausted from the past few hours, replied, "Mister, it seems that Plant has more than one engine. We've been here half an hour, and the mail that took the prize is halfway to Cuba by now."

Silence at first then "I'll be damned!"

Lodge died in 1922 after 50 years of service; twenty years later, the "Rhode Island Lady" --the heroine of the "Run of the 111" --lay scattered over the Waycross yard. Her next assignment would also be a type of race; she would be used as ammunition in World War II.

Contributed by Robert Latimer Hurst.

Copyright 2002 Robert L. Hurst  
All rights reserved!

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